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Interview: Leslie Buchbinder, Director of HAIRY WHO & THE CHICAGO IMAGISTS


This month, Nitehawk’s Art Seen presents the New York premiere of Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists. (Get your tickets here!) The new documentary centers around an incredibly unique group of artists in Chicago who, whether you know them or not, you will certainly recognize the artists they have influenced (like Gary Panter who will be at the April 23 screening). Art Seen programmer Caryn Coleman chatted with first-time director Leslie Buchbinder about the film, Hairy Who, New York and what’s up next…

Nitehawk: You grew up in Chicago and knew some of the “Hairy Who” artists. How did this influence you and when did you decide that this was a documentary you wanted to make?

Leslie Buchbinder: Well…it so happened that at the same time I entered adolescence, this extraordinary group of artists – later known as the Chicago Imagists – entered my family’s life. There was (happily, now!) no way to avoid either the art or the artists! While gazing at this powerhouse scene with pubescent eyes, I was alternately disturbed and relieved, perplexed and enlightened. Plus, I had the remarkable privilege of occasionally ‘hanging out’ with this group. For example, at the age of 14, I somehow coerced Ed Paschke and Roger Brown to spend an afternoon making holiday tree decorations with me. While we sat together forging ornaments out of flour, salt, and water, I watched Ed’s and Roger’s agile hands transform the goop into fully-painted forms, including genetalia-replete torsos adorned with sparkles & pins. The day was uncanny and magical: It reaffirmed my goal to live a life devoted to un-adult-erated creating within grownup time.

Years later, I was in Northwestern University’s Performance Studies Graduate program, studying with professors Mary Zimmerman, Frank Galati, & Virgil Johnson, among others, when I re-harnessed my passion for research, teamwork, writing, performing, and directing. One particularly stunning learning moment was when I did a performance piece based on Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird for a Mary Zimmerman class. When critiquing the piece, Mary commented: “You’ve created 13 disparate, intriguing performances within one – but they don’t congeal. It’s an overstuffed goose. Try again.” So, though chagrined, I rebooted, and slowly began to ‘get’ that by keeping the whole in mind, even when working on specific beats of each stanza, I could – somehow – find the ‘union’. While performing 13 Ways (redux), I felt/heard the harmonics ringing. Well, who doesn’t want more of that?!

Around this time, Ed Paschke died. The sense of all that creativity being stopped at death was chilling & immensely sad, but it also reminded me how much we learn from the creative souls all of us are honored to know in some way – whether intimately or tangentially. I began to think about how I could weave Ed’s art/life & those of all the other artists of Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists into a cohesive story about a very special time, place, & group of artists. Film seemed to provide the best medium for accomplishing this. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to assemble an all-star team: writer John Corbett, co-producer Brian Ashby, editor Ben Kolak, animator Lilli Carré, composer Tomeka Reid, etc. etc. Over six years, 50-some interviews, many edits – followed by repeated chagrin & reboots – later, the team and I started to see/hear the harmonics.

Photo Caption: Ed Paschke 1971-2 portraits of Buchbinder family, from left to right: Brad (brother), Gilda (mother), Hank (father), Leslie

Photo Caption: Ed Paschke 1971-2 portraits of Buchbinder family, from left to right:
Brad (brother), Gilda (mother), Hank (father), Leslie

In your film, there is the (inevitable) comparison to the New York art world. This seems to be the case for any documentary being made about a city that’s not New York (for instance, The Cool School or the recent Llyn Foulkes: One Man Band). I guess this is a long way of me asking: is it frustrating to have to include a contrasting look at New York when highlighting the importance of the work done by Chicago artists?

Yes – and no! When considering art within a broader context than the environs within which it was created, the question of how non-NYC-based art relates to that of New York – or wherever the art epicenter is at a given time – is necessarily an important part of the dialogue. E.g. in the March 2002 edition of ARTFORUM, Mike Kelley eloquently stated this conundrum:

…Artists are a mobile lot and generally well aware of national and international developments in art… Of course, taste is an issue, and in a sense this is linked to geographical centrality and power. Contemporary art history has been constructed in America primarily with reference to the powerful institutions centered in New York. The historical conditions that have led to dominant New York styles are far too complex to describe here. But I will say that New York regionalism is, in effect, presented as national sentiment…

Further, while many NYC-based artists struggled to define themselves as vehemently not European, the Chicago Imagists were free from that Oedipal crisis. The Imagists also were far from the klieg lights that shone both gloriously – and unremittingly – on New York artists. This afforded Hairy Who & compatriots a sense of laissez-faire, and a form of exemption from accepted dogma – one that served as a powerful tonic to young artists like Jeff Koons, Peter Doig, Amy Sillman, Kerry James Marshall, Sue Williams, Chris Ware, Gary Panter, Aaron Curry and many more—some of whom found the focus of the New York School dry and uninspiring.

How has the Chicago arts community responded to the film?hairywhostill-lres-02

Frankly, the Pentimenti team and I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm that has greeted the film! The Chicago screenings (held at numerous venues since May 2014) have sold out, & have received some extraordinary press coverage that we hope brings as much joy to the artists within the film as to us, the filmmakers! We also have been embraced by the larger Chicago community, as for example within this recent article by Chicago Magazine. We are profoundly grateful!

If there’s one thing you want people to take away from this documentary about Hairy Who, Chicago Imagists and Chicago artists in general, what do you want that to be?

The team and I hope that people are as inspired by these artists as we are. If the spark is ignited in even just one audience member to go out and make, do, create, in whatever endeavor, then we’ll feel the baton has been passed on. When viewing how elastic this particular art history was/is, even though it has seemed brittle at moments, perhaps others will be emboldened to listen to their truest voice, no matter how seemingly out of sync with current fashions. As Kerry James Marshall says in the film: “I never recognized this crisis in painting that people keep talking about. What I do recognize is that from time to time, the critical interest in the art world seems to focus its attention on one area or another. But it doesn’t in any way erase the activity of what other people are doing…I’m not one of those people who frets about the possibilities of things, or the endings of things, because I just know that good work will out. It always does.”

Hairy Who is the debut film from your nonprofit production company, Pentimenti. What’s your next project?

Next up is a film about artist H.C. Westermann – in 3D – a format that rhymes with the literal and metaphorical multi-dimensionality of Westermann’s art/life, and will invite the audience to interact with his work in a visually lush and meditative way. Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and Wim Wenders’s “Pina” have been inspiring films for our team, whose usages of 3D reveal artworks and artists through the eloquent intimacy offered by 3-D film-perspective.

Nitehawk Cinema’s Art Seen presents three screening of Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists. Thursday, April 23 includes a Q&A with Gary Panter, Dan Nadel, & producer Brian Ashby. The weekend brunch screenings on April 25 & April 26 include an introduction by Ashby. For more information & to purchase tickets, visit the film page